How to disagree without making enemies in the age of the pandemic – tips from a psychologist

Have you ever been ridiculed or abused for your views on COVID? If yes, you are not alone. Anyone who wants to have an open dialogue about the pandemic often encounters a hostile atmosphere online.

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This extreme polarization around COVID reflects a broader “culture war” in society, in which disagreements over political, cultural and social issues have escalated into genuine hostility.

One might hope that a global crisis like COVID would unite people. But on the contrary, COVID and our response to it has added fuel to an already raging fire as people are bitterly divided over issues like masks, lockdowns and even vaccines.

Quarterlife, a series by The Conversation

This article is part of Quarter Life, a series about issues affecting us in our twenties and thirties. From the challenges of starting a career and taking care of our sanity, to the excitement of starting a family, adopting a pet, or just making friends as an adult. The articles in this series explore the questions and provide answers as we navigate through this tumultuous period of life.

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A minority of people hold extremist views about COVID that are unscientific, such as: B. the belief in conspiracy theories that deny that the virus even exists. However, even among the majority that recognizes the reality and seriousness of the pandemic, there are many different views that instead focus on ethical dilemmas for which there is not necessarily one right answer.

For example, while lockdowns and other restrictions may have been important in containing the spread of the virus, there continues to be heated debate about the appropriate severity of such measures and whether or not the benefits have outweighed the costs. The lives saved by lockdowns must be weighed against the damage they have caused to the economy and mental health (which in turn costs lives), the resulting increase in child abuse and domestic violence.

These debates continue to play out in scientific communities, with different researchers reaching different conclusions and among the general public.

So what if you meet someone who has different views on COVID than you do? Maybe it’s a new work or university colleague. Or maybe an uncomfortable topic comes up with someone you met in a social context. How to avoid hostility when you disagree with someone.

cultivate compassion

Research has shown that compassion and empathy can promote conflict resolution. In the context of a disagreement, compassion and empathy allow us to better appreciate that others may have different opinions than we do because of their personal circumstances.

Importantly, empathy and compassion are not necessarily static qualities. They can be strengthened. For example, psychologists might use an intervention called perspective taking with their clients to improve their ability to put themselves in someone else’s shoes. But this is a concept that anyone can put into practice.

Imagine meeting someone who is either against COVID restrictions, which we advocate, or for COVID restrictions, which we oppose. It may be that the person advocating strict restrictions has lost a family member to COVID. Perhaps the person defying the restrictions has children who have suffered from school closures, or has an elderly relative whom they were not allowed to visit and who later died.

We then have to ask ourselves how would I feel if I were in this position? By going through this in our head for just a minute, we can improve our ability to hold difficult conversations.

An illustration of a man and woman arguing.
Compassion and empathy are the key to disagreeing with politeness.

Another psychological protection against conflict is intellectual humility. Simply put, this means being open to the possibility that we might be wrong. This trait can also be cultivated.

When someone disagrees with us, we can take it as a simple disagreement or as a personal attack. When we’re in a heightened emotional state, our sense of personal threat increases, which means we’re more likely to view the disagreement as the latter. This leads to an increased potential for conflict.

Ideally, we want to work toward an open mindset, an attitude that avoids judgment, and reducing the extent to which we feel personally threatened. One way to achieve this can be through relaxation or mindfulness exercises. These techniques have also been shown to increase our compassion and empathy.

Read more: Friendships end for many reasons, including differences exposed by the COVID-19 pandemic

Recent research has also shown that people with greater intellectual humility are more likely to fact-check potential COVID misinformation than to take claims at face value. Cultivating intellectual humility not only makes it easier for us to agree on COVID (and other issues). It can also help us avoid becoming victims of COVID-related misinformation in the first place.

Contradict without falling apart

In the context of the COVID response, some questions are no longer scientific questions but become moral judgments. As the pandemic continues, many of us will have to navigate encounters with someone on the opposite side of an ethical dilemma from ourselves.

In these situations, it pays to practice compassion, empathy, and intellectual humility. These principles can be applied not only to disagreements about COVID, but also to other contentious issues.

Being able to live peacefully with those we disagree with not only makes the world a more beautiful place, but is essential for civil society to function. Hopefully, if we can learn to see those we disagree with not as immoral “others” but as our fellow human beings, we will be better prepared for the next global challenge.

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